- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - Lyman Connor can usually be found at a messy workbench on the second floor of an eerily empty downtown Roanoke studio that he calls his “microfactory.”

His desk, covered in spare parts, a magnifying glass, wires and soldering gear, used to sit in the sunroom off the back of his house. That’s where he worked for three years, trying desperately to invent a cheaper bionic hand for amputees.

These prosthetics can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Connor, a 57-year-old General Electric software engineer, hates the idea that some people might not be able to afford one.

He’s convinced he can design an equally helpful hand himself and produce it with 3D printers inside his pop-up factory.

Then, the theory goes, he could sell some hands at discounted rates, and put away enough money to give away others for free to those in need.

The Roanoke Times first visited Connor at his home in 2014, months after the project began. Even two years later, though, he says he’s had a hard time getting people to take his project seriously.

So he gathered his gear in November, leased office space and moved into a professional downtown office.

Connor says most of the designing is complete on the device he’s calling the Mano-matic. There are still issues to work out, but he has set the goal of producing 30 hands in 2017. In 2018, he hopes to do 50 more.

Most of those would be given away, if he can raise money to cover the parts. His first fundraising event, a launch party at the microfactory, didn’t bring in enough for even one hand. Connor says he’s not sure now where the money will come from, but he’ll keep trying.

But for now, that’s just a goal.

Connor is still the only person working on the project, though now he has a name for his nonprofit: Handsmith.

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The Campbell Avenue microfactory would be completely empty if it wasn’t for the workbench, a set of speakers and five 3D printers tucked up against a row of windows. The space is littered with pieces of hands and other objects created by the printers, including a bobble head resembling Connor’s son and a replacement knob for a part that broke on his chair.

The entire space glows pink around the clock because of the specialized lamps Connor is using to dry the parts that pop out of his printers.

He jokes that he could probably make more money by opening a club, based on all the people who have been drawn by the light and knocked on the door to see when the new bar in town is opening.

“If you want to learn to 3D print, you can come on in. If you want to dance, go somewhere else,” Connor laughed.

But there’s really nothing else he would rather be doing with his spare time.

Connor still gets giddy when he talks about the first time he was able to give away one of his hands, on Dec. 2, to a 20-year-old man born without a right hand.

Doug Smiley, a certified prosthetist and orthotist, fitted the patient, and Connor looked on as the device sprang to life in exactly the way it was designed.

Smiley said the hand wasn’t perfect, but it was a big moment for the Mano-matic project.

“For (Connor), to see it in action was probably the most rewarding thing for him as a designer,” Smiley said. “He finally got to see it on the end user.”

That’s still the only hand that’s ever been used. But Connor hopes to do more in the near future.

There are a lot of control mechanisms for these kinds of motorized hands, and Connor says he’s tinkered with most. The first model he gave away used a simple remote control, similar to keyless entry for a car. Press one button and the hand opens, press another and it closes. The third option creates a pointing motion that can be used for tasks like controlling a phone.

“Where it has gotten thus far is pretty remarkable, but he still has some obstacles to overcome before he’s ready to release it to the world,” Smiley said.

He added that the biggest hurdle will be finding a type of construction material that’s durable enough to withstand the wear and tear of daily use, but flexible enough to offer the same functionality found in the more expensive industry standard models.

A motorized hand can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $100,000, depending on the capabilities of the device, according to Smiley. Not every amputee prefers these types of hands, he added, because they don’t work well for heavy lifting or in wet and dirty environments.

Even Connor acknowledges that his hand won’t be cheap, with a $14,000 price tag for those who don’t qualify to receive one through the Handsmith nonprofit.

Each of his models has five motors, which alone cost a total of $2,100. There’s also the custom parts he has to manufacture at a local aluminum shop, a small computer processor and a mechanism to lock the hand onto a prosthetic wrist.

“But with the nonprofit, if you can’t afford a hand, you’re not going to be turned away,” Connor said. “You’re going to get a hand.”

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Connor has learned about the prosthetic industry while developing the Mano-matic. He holds a deep passion for those affected by the loss of a limb, though he has no personal connection to the disability.

Instead, his obsession was born out of a cycling accident in October 2014, when he was hit by a car and almost killed.

He was forced to take months off work. Pretty soon, he found himself sitting at home in pain, fighting a feeling of uselessness.

During his hospital stay, Connor said he briefly met a child without a hand. The boy couldn’t afford a bionic prosthetic, so Connor decided to use his down time to build one for him.

Three years later, that project has ballooned into the microfactory he poured his own personal savings into.

Connor never did find that child again, but he says the meeting changed the course of his life.

“I found something that kept me up and made me think and helped me work past the months of recovery,” Connor said.

He added that his job with GE is a nice safety net in case things go south with his bionic hand venture. He hasn’t taken on any outside investment, so he’s paid for all his equipment himself.

“It’s very daunting every day working (at GE) 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then coming in here from 5 to 2 a.m. I’m 57 years old, you know?” Connor said. “A million times people told me to walk away. I’ve got a good job, just walk away from that and salvage your brain for something else. But no. I started this and I want to finish it.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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